Proms at … Cadogan Hall 4: Aris Quartet play Schubert, Sirmen & Haydn

Aris Quartet [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Schubert String Quartet no.1 in G minor / B flat major D18 (1810/11) (2:03 – 18:14 on the broadcast link below)
Maddalena Laura Sirmen String Quartet No. 5 in F minor (publ. 1769) (20:20 – 31:43)
Haydn String Quartet in B flat major Op.76/4 ‘Sunrise’ (1796-7) (33:04 – 54:33)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 12 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The BBC Proms are charting 800 years of history in their Proms At…Cadogan Hall concerts this season, and the fourth instalment brought an examination of the string quartet towards the start of its existence. It was great to see Haydn – the acknowledged father of the form – given top billing for once, with one of the six masterpieces published as his Op.76, the mature peak of his chamber music output.

Before that, the youthful Aris Quartet brought us music by an even younger composer. Schubert was only just into his teens when he delivered the first of fifteen published string quartets, and even at this point – with a work given its first performance by the family quartet in their home – he was finding a distinctive and adventurous voice. Schubert played viola in his own piece – and it was published when he turned 15.

The String Quartet no.1 inhabits two keys, G minor and its major key ‘relative’, B flat. The first movement (from 2:03 on the broadcast link above) has a tender slow introduction but becomes surprisingly stern as its main theme kicks in (3:47), with brisk tremolo figurations. This is complemented by a less stern, major key theme later on (5:24). The Aris Quartet gave it the appropriate depth, before moving on to the silvery elegance of the Menuetto (7:56), where the quartet are instructed to use mutes. This had a nice rise and fall to its dance steps in the Aris performance. A warm Andante followed (11:30), now in the sunnier climbs of B flat major, before a bright and breezy finale (14:31) in the same key confirmed the young composer’s progress not just with writing for strings, but in his already enviable grasp of form.

Very little has been heard to date of Maddalena Laura Sirmen, but thanks to the BBC Proms we had confirmation that women composers were indeed alive and well in the 18th century. Thankfully performances of their work are starting to break through, and to hear Sirmen’s String Quartet no.5, published alongside Mozart’s early works, was to hear a voice rooted in Venetian Baroque traditions but very much looking forward.
Sirmen’s work opens with a short but quite austere Largo (20:20), which the quartet played with a bit less vibrato, gradually using more as the music became warmer. Then at 21:30 they gave a nice, full sound to the first Allegro, an attractive movement and a busy affair where the parts are closely intertwined. Sirmen’s style is free of padding and the players enjoyed its conversational style. The Largo returned at 26:26, casting a shadow before the Minuetto (27:40) drew us back to music of optimism and charm.

Haydn wrote a great many string quartets – thought to be 68 in all – but the six published as Op.76 are among his finest achievements in the field. He somehow manages to find a fresh approach with each of his works, and in the case of the ‘Sunrise’ it is through a musical portrayal of the very beginning of the day (from 33:04). He had already successfully tried this approach in a symphony (the introduction of Symphony no.6 (Le Matin) the best example) but this is a more intimate affair.
The performance here was beautifully shaded to catch the first light, with a sensitive and beautiful solo from Anna Katharina Wildermuth, but the ensuing busy passages – the players following the composer’s directions – were much more forceful, as though the sun had woken a gale force wind too.

This was a very fine performance, enjoying Haydn’s invention and wit, but giving each return to the ‘Sunrise’ material the magic of the first hearing. The second movement, marked Adagio, was expansive but also softly voiced (41:18), an example of one of the composer’s later, radiant slow movements. There was still plenty of room given to the first violin part, and Wildermuth took full advantage with excellent intonation.

A typically lively Minuet followed, with a smile and the odd knowing glance through its chromatic melodies (45:59). With it came a contrasting Trio section which had something of the march about it (57:35), over a steady drone from cellist Lukas Sieber, with the Minuet repeated at 49:01. The fourth movement (50:02) was elegant, light on its feet and with fine ensemble playing, the quartet enjoying Haydn’s presentation of the theme and its variations right up to the brisk finish.

Once off air the quartet gave an encore of the last movement of Dvořák’s American string quartet, disrupting the progression through 800 years for the live audience rather, but again playing with plenty of energy and virtuosity.

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

The six Surmen quartets can be heard on Spotify in this collection from the Allegri Quartet:

Meanwhile Haydn’s collection of Op.76 quartets can be heard here in a fine set of recordings from the Takacs Quartet:

Wigmore Mondays – István Várdai & Sunwook Kim play Falla, Schubert & Kodály

István Várdai (cello, above) & Sunwook Kim (piano, below)

Falla Suite populaire espagnole (1914) (2:07 – 16:05 on the broadcast link below)
Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (18:00 – 44:40)
Kodály Hungarian Rondo (1917) (46:46 – 56:28)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 July 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The cello has always been one of the instruments closest to a pure imitation of the voice. Its range and its ability to phrase are both qualities that make it ideal for arrangements of songs.

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla may have collected and published his Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) for voice and piano, but they were soon arranged for violin and piano, then for cello and piano by Maurice Maréchal. The instrumental arrangements removed the second song and changed the order to make an effective concert suite. In this slightly understated but effective beginning from cellist István Várdai and pianist Sunwook Kim the music is laid bare, just as Falla would no doubt have preferred.

The first song, El paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth) (2:07), is quite restless but nicely ornamented in this performance with a subtle swing to the rhythms. The second, Nana (4:43), is bittersweet, falling on the side of sorrow, while the rustic Cancíon (7:17) makes nice use of the cello’s glassy harmonics. Polo evokes a lovely, summery heat haze with its dreamy thrummed chords (8:48) topped by a really powerful melodic line from Várdai. The quieter, yearning thoughts of Asturiana (10:18) make a more subtle impression afterwards, before the lively and uplifting Jota (12:59) completes the set.

The arpeggione was an instrument from Schubert’s time that did not last for long. With six strings and frets like a guitar, it did not catch on as a repertoire instrument, and so the substantial Arpeggione Sonata Schubert wrote for the instrument was threatened with redundancy, before finally being published in 1867. The work transcribes ideally for the cello or viola with piano accompaniment, its melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The first movement (from 18:00) is the largest of all, expanding to make the most of what seems like quite a plaintive initial idea (the first section repeated from 21:15). It is an elegant dialogue between cello and piano, where at times the two feel like dancers in and out of hold. Some more vigorous diversions aside, the music returns to the slightly downcast mood of the opening, pensive rather than outgoing. István Várdai really makes his cello sing in the higher register, while Sunwook Kim shows a delicate touch on the piano.

The slow movement (30:32) is short but meaningful, with a floated melody from the cello threatening to make it as substantial a length as the first movement, but then gliding effortlessly into the finale (35:04) Here Schubert’s dance writing reappears, enjoyably so in the more upbeat minor key diversion (36:37) but returning to the slightly troubled air we became aware of earlier, enjoying itself to an extent but never fully throwing off the melancholic shackles apparently dogging him from the rejection of his opera Alfonso und Estrella.

No such issues in the Kodály Hungarian Rondo, like the Falla celebrating its origins with feeling. This piece, written in 1917 not published until 1976, starts with what seems like an innocuous tune on the cello (46:46) but one that goes on to dominate, reappearing for both instruments and in various guises. Complementing it are a host of other folksy melodies, most with a distinctive Hungarian flavour in their rhythm or melodic profile. As the piece progresses so the energy levels rise, to an impressive set of flourishes near the end, played with great panache by the two soloists.

As a generous encore, cooling the temperature after the Kodály, we had Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op.107 – the only one he wrote directly for cello and piano (57:50). Várdai was playing a Stradivarius cello dating from 1673 that used to belong to none other than Jacqueline du Pré – and he brought out the instrument’s gorgeous tone, especially in the midrange, and abundantly in the Kodály. With Kim’s sensitive accompaniment, they made it an extremely enjoyable concert with which to close the Wigmore Hall’s 2018-19 lunchtime season. See you for more in September!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below. István Várdai has recorded the arrangement of the Falla suite, but not the pieces by Schubert or Kodály. The Mendelssohn is played by Jacqueline du Pré – possibly on the cello heard in this very concert! – accompanied by her mother Iris.

Várdai has, however, completed a disc of works for cello by the Hungarian composer that include one of the cellist’s ultimate tests, the Sonata for Solo Cello:

You can watch a video of Várdai playing Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello with violinist Gilles Apap, at the HarrisonParrott website:

Kodály’s music is colourful and passionate, staying very close to the composer’s roots. This selection of orchestral works serves as the ideal introduction to his tuneful music, conducted by conductors and fellow countrymen Ádám and Iván Fischer:

On record: CBSO / Edward Gardner – Schubert: Symphonies Vol.1 – nos. 3, 5 & 8 (Chandos)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Schubert
Symphony no.3 in D major D200 (1815)
Symphony no.5 in B flat major D485 (1816)
Symphony no.8 in B minor D759 ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Chandos CHSA5234 [74’11”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper
Recorded 9-10 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

What’s the story?

Having already tackled the Mendelssohn symphonies (and with a further instalment featuring the overtures imminent), Edward Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony now turn to those by Schubert in what promises to be a notable addition to the orchestra’s discography

What’s the music like?

Even with advances made (primarily through the work of Brian Newbould) in recent decades, Schubert’s cycle still tends to fall into two categories – the half-dozen mainly of his teenage years, with overt influences from Haydn, Mozart and earlier Beethoven, then the Unfinished and Great symphonies, in which the composer forges a decisive new path at the outset of the Romantic era. Whether this survey also takes in any of those fragmentary pieces that came in-between, or the drafted ‘Tenth Symphony’ from Schubert’s final weeks, remains to be seen.

This release commences with the Third Symphony, most succinct of the earlier works in its thematic economy and formal concision. Gardner catches well the anticipatory nature of the slow introduction, then steers a secure course through the main Allegro’s alternation of pert woodwind melody with lithe tuttis. More intermezzo than scherzo, the Allegretto is as deftly characterized as the ensuing Menuetto is bracingly despatched. Gardner also minimises that sense of the final Presto as unfolding in ever-decreasing circles prior to its effervescent coda.

The Fifth Symphony is the highpoint of those from Schubert’s formative years – not least in the Mozartian poise of its opening Allegro, with the CBSO woodwind at their most felicitous. Gardner’s relatively swift tempo for the Andante might lessen its inherent charm but enables him to emphasize the searching modulations into its more restive episodes – after which, the Menuetto is more explicit in its G minor incisiveness. Nor is there any lack of impetus as the final Allegro pursues a witty while also suave course through to its almost peremptory close.

From here to the intensely introspective start of the Eighth Symphony (the ‘Unfinished’) is to enter a whole new expressive epoch. The CBSO strings are at their sonorous best in the initial Allegro, here with due emphasis on its ‘moderato’ marking and accruing considerable intensity in its anguished development then fatalistic coda. The Andante complements it in almost every respect, with Gardner ensuring that the hymnal eloquence and anxious musing of its contrasting sections achieve formal and expressive parity ultimately set in relief by the coda’s radiant benediction.

Does it all work?

Yes – thanks not least to some unerringly alert and sensitive playing, together with SACD sound whose clarity and overall perspective admirably reflects that of the refurbished Town Hall acoustic. Interpretively, Gardner occupies a fruitful middle-ground between the tensile rhetoric of Jonathan Nott (Tudor) and agile incisiveness of Thomas Dausgaard (BIS), hitherto the most consistent among recent Schubert traversals and ‘authentic’ through their conveying of this music’s essence without falling prey to merely fatuous notions of stylistic authenticity.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. An additional enhancement is the insights of Bayan Northcott, whose booklet notes will hopefully grace future instalments in a series whose second volume is keenly awaited. Perhaps Gardner and the CBSO might also consider the Berwald symphonies at some point?

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Chandos website

Wigmore Mondays – Jeremy Denk plays Bach & Schubert

Jeremy Denk (piano)

J.S. Bach Partita no.5 in G major BWV829 (1726-1730) (1:35 – 16:37)
Schubert 4 Impromptus D935 (1827) (19:16 – 54:07)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If you know anybody who is sceptical of the music of J.S. Bach, point them in the direction of the link above, and Jeremy Denk’s account of his Partita no.5. This sparkling display of virtuosity showed beyond doubt the composer’s ability to write instinctively with humour, a playful Partita where the only regret was the pianist’s decision not to use all the written repeats applied to the dance-based movements.

The reason for this would almost certainly have been time constraints, with Denk’s wish to combine the Bach with the Four Impromptus Schubert completed in 1827, his last full year. The two made a very satisfying coupling, giving listeners in the Wigmore Hall and to BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert an hour of fluidly written and brilliantly played pieces.

The Bach first, beginning at 1:35 on the broadcast link with a lively Praeambulum, then moving almost without a break into the traditional sequence of dance movements the composer reserved for pieces such as this. With the mood defined Bach presents an elegant Allemande (3:54), a light footed Corrente (7:35) and then a slower Sarabande (8:52), which features attractive doubling of the melody.

These slower dances always present a pause for thought within Bach, an intake of breath before more dancing – which here includes a Minuetta (11:34) where Bach puts a delightful ‘two against three’ set of rhythms together, the dance stumbling attractively. It’s over all too soon unfortunately, but the straight faced Passepied (12:38) has a stately feel, before the triple-time Gigue (13:48), with its centrepiece, a fugue that Denk masters most impressively, building the momentum to a thrilling conclusion.

Angela Hewitt has spoken of how the key of G major ‘always seems to inspire Bach to write music of great radiance, joy, gentleness and technical display’ – and that is on view throughout Denk’s spring-like account. He delighted in asides to the audience throughout, letting them in on his enjoyment of the music.

The Schubert presented a very different range of emotions. Published as a set of four pieces in 1839, twelve years after composition, the Impromptus work in isolation and also as a quartet, their themes crossing over but not as rigidly as a sonata might demand. This spirit of relative freedom runs through the four pieces.

The first Impromptu, in F minor (19:16 on the link) is a substantial piece that immediately brings Beethoven to mind with its call to arms – Schubert’s contemporary having not long died. The second theme of this impromptu (20:51) is soft and hymn-like, reflective yet with strength in depth when repeated and magnified, in development. This intense passage is cleverly worked, coming back around to the relatively stern main theme at 24:25, though Denk enjoys the more optimistic strains of the major key as it soon takes over. The ‘hymn’ recurs in this key at 26:08 – but as befits the uncertainty of this music, Schubert can’t resist more harmonic movement right through to the turbulent end.

The second Impromptu (29:43) is in F minor’s ‘relative’ key, A flat major, and starts in wonderful stillness. This main theme is restated on a number of occasions, resisting any of the louder interventions trying to derail it. A central section (from 33:05) is faster and flowing, but once again takes a turn for darker waters as Schubert alternates between major and minor key. This only heightens the soft contentment of the main music when it returns at 35:17, wonderfully handled by Denk.

The third Impromptu is similarly light and shade, but this time much more in favour of brighter thoughts. From its opening (37:27) it sets out a theme very similar to a famous melody from Schubert’s Rosamunde stage music, which the composer proceeds to take as a base for several variations – just as he did in an earlier String Quartet in A minor. This unfolds beautifully – with impeccable technique from Denk, and impressive depth in the minor key fourth variation (41:44). The twinkling figure of the final variation (45:30) looks to finish the piece in high spirits, but a final statement returns us to quiet thought.

Finally the fourth Impromptu (47:49) returns us to the F minor world of the first, though here Schubert is in the mood for a dance, evoking the Hungarian cimbalom with spicy harmonies and some daring passagework for the right hand. This finishes the piece acrobatically in the run up to 54:07, a feat superbly realised by Denk here.

As a completely irreverent encore, breaking Schubert’s spell but proving a superbly entertaining sign-off, we had the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser well and truly sent through the boogie-woogie and blues wringer by Donald Lambert (from 55:55 – 58:21)

Further reading and listening

If you enjoyed Jeremy Denk’s Bach playing, there is a disc of Partitas he released back in 2011 for Azica Records. You can hear it on Spotify here:

Denk’s latest release is an intriguing exploration of music from 1300 to the present day. You can hear it here:

Meanwhile to explore more Schubert Impromptus and pieces, the peerless Alfred Brendel is strongly recommended. This album includes all the Impromptus for solo piano as well as some attractive German Dances, the elusive but compelling 6 Moments Musicaux and the darkly tinged 3 Klavierstücke:

The Favourite Soundtrack – listen here

Happy New Year!

One of the most hotly anticipated film releases of this New Year 2019 is The Favourite. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, supported by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as part of a starry cast to tell a tragi-comic tale around the life of the 18th century English monarch.

The score of this colourful, moving and often hilarious film is full to the brim with classical music – so as the release of the official soundtrack is a few weeks away, here is a playlist of the musical numbers. From Purcell‘s incredibly moving Music For A While to Messiaen‘s thundering Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) by way of small-scale Schubert and Schumann, it contains some absolute gems!